Split from the Corbyn blog posts
why it's not easy to get ppl involved in grassroots direct action when you do have a group going
why our grassroots direct action things are very difficult to carry out and to win
how to make them more successful
why are grassroots direct action groups in just a few bits of the country? Not just talking about small towns, most boroughs in London don't have a solnet, the cleaners unions are not operating anywhere outside London.
Ok first just to say I think
Ok first just to say I think groups like HASL or LCAP or Sisters Uncut are run very well, I don't think the fundamental issue is how groups are run, I think it's structural problems.
One question I'd like to ask people is about geography, why are the groups only located in the places they are?
Another is what makes it so difficult to get people to get involved in them?
Could people please chip in with their experiences.
Quote: why it's not easy to
In terms of this, I'm not sure it is that difficult to get people involved in stuff if you do have a practical goal and a practical strategy to achieve it - for example a workplace campaign. Although it can be challenging to get a significant number/a majority of people involved. But in terms of the difficulties, I think that largely depends on the context.
So the "grassroots direct action" efforts I'm involved in are exclusively in the workplace. So getting people involved are not depends largely on conditions within the individual section. Generally speaking the higher paid people are the less likely they are to get involved in stuff. But also the level of fear of management is a factor. Probably the biggest factor in my personal experience is how management have acted. If they have managed something badly, that can quickly turn a previously pliant workforce into an angry one prepared to organise and take direct action against the employer.
With community type campaigns these factors will be very different. Although in general I would think that practicality is an issue: is the goal achievable, and even more importantly do people think the goal is achievable?
Sorry if this isn't helpful, hopefully others have thoughts. If you had examples of the sort of campaign you're talking about maybe I could have some more practical comments.
Again, I think this gets completely different answers depending on the circumstances. TBH I don't think that direct action campaigns are particularly difficult to carry out or to win. In fact, I think direct action campaigns are the most likely ones to be successful: this is why I'm an anarchist, and always push direct action as a strategy/tactic.
Of course any particular campaign may be unwinnable at a particular time though. I guess it depends on the state of the economy, the balance of class forces, the goal, etc.
From a couple of personal examples that I can think of, I have been involved in campaigns against cuts, against compulsory redundancies, and for the London living wage.
The anti-cuts campaigns were basically forced on us by the austerity agenda. And the momentum behind it has been basically unstoppable: a strong government, with pretty good public support, slashing tens of billions of pounds, faced with a pliant and divided union movement, with low-density and a disorganised and utterly demoralised working class following 30 years of consistent defeat.
So I think that sort of campaign will be mostly bound to fail in the current climate. However the campaigns that we have chosen to initiate, like for the London living wage, have been relatively easy to mobilise people around and win, basically because we chose to initiate the campaigns we felt were winnable.
Not really sure what to say here. I could possibly have suggestions about individual campaigns, but not really in general.
To this bit I think have to refer back to my previous answer, in that I don't really think that people being involved in overtly political groups is a particularly good barometer of practical working class self organisation.
Political solidarity networks exist in a couple of places, but all over the country loads of people engage in mutual self-help, and volunteer etc (TBH I'm quite sceptical about the radical potential of solidarity networks, as I don't really see them as necessarily being that different from charity, albeit with a radical face, but I don't want this thread to be derailed into that, so if that's something people do want to discuss please start a new thread).
While the "radical" cleaners' unions have been doing absolutely fantastic work, lots of cleaners have been doing organising work around the country, without any attachment to radical groups. A couple of the cleaners at my work, for example have become lead organisers and have helped win the living wage and are currently fighting cuts in hours. And in lots of places cleaners have won the living wage through their own efforts (normally with the help or hindrance of traditional union branches).
Urban areas generally have a better organised and more militant working class, which was addressed by some posters earlier on in the Labour thread. I think multiple factors are at play, including primarily a greater concentration of workers in one place, normally bigger workplaces, far more job opportunities, less fear of job loss/blacklisting, more history of organising from industrial past, which does remain in a common culture/families, presence of universities and radical political groups etc.
Quote: Another is what makes
So, I'm sure I don't have any answers to your questions fingers, but I do have an observation and more questions.
Even mainstream, reformist NGO's suffer from a lack of grassroots involvement. Most public meetings organized in my area by these groups are sparsely attended, and follow-through with phone call/letter writing campaigns is very low, even when the issues involved have a direct impact on people's lives. Add to that Red Marriott's observation that the concept of solidarity has become too rare, and it makes me wonder if radical groups suffer more than any others when it comes to having problems getting people involved?
About organising in areas
About organising in areas where we do not have support / are bad at organising. I think someone commented earlier about organising in rural areas. So this post is just about that one.
(Speculation) I don’t actually know a lot about the countryside or deindustrialised towns, so I could easily be completely wrong on this, but from what I understand they are either very tightly knit communities or people live so far away from each other that they are effectively alienated from their own communities.
Neither of those is very conducting for any sort of far-left organising. If we just talk about ‘direct action’ then I think country side conditions aren’t that problematic. Farmers are often quite well organised into interest groups and the far-right has no problems organising outside big cities. There’s probably all kinds of ‘direct action’ going on in these communities but we don’t hear about it as we are not connected to these communities. Neither is every kind of ‘direct action’ based community organising interesting from a class struggle point of view. Given that the OP was about the labour party I’ll assume we are talking about the kind of organising relevant for people who want to do something “left”.
About activist social geography
The problem with the activist model is that it is difficult (or impossible) to export further unless the conditions it is based on already exist there. For example if you got a small town with a tightly knit community and conservative attitudes, anything that is perceived as confrontational, unusual, or creating conflict is not going to be well received. Advocating violent revolution, destruction of the state and capital is unlikely to go anywhere, but in an area where there isn’t a long history of industrial struggle any kind of nuts and bolts direct action might not be perceived as much different from the former. Being different from the norm is more difficult in a small community where social acceptance is more necessary. This could mean that you would have to gain majority support or acceptance almost immediately to organise effectively. Sets limitations on strategy.
Urban life is characterized by a certain anonymity, but also cultural diversity. Subcultural communities are formed more easily. You’re also more likely to find like minded individuals through various platforms and you are more able to build dual power though slow networking without having to immediately confront people who might disagree with you.
I’m generalising but I think that all of the direct action groups cited favourably in the OP grew out of some kind of existing subcultural social space, which served an associative function. I’m not sure but didn’t LAWAS have a significant role in the early days of cleaner organising? How many functioning anarchist groups have there been outside areas where there is a lefty university, bookstore or a social centre nearby? Long term activist have often started from fairly diverse groups and been involved with a lot of different groups. They know people, have skills, and function as nodes in the general political social network. Sociologist might call it social capital, although I dislike the term. It’s build through a prior existing social space. In well organised industries an active union branch serves this function. Loads of activist start from some shitty (and completely mad) lefty student groups. Smart people will move on to more worthwhile things later on using the connections and skills they have.
The problem with organising in small deindustrial towns might be that you are more likely to be alone with your problems and if so, it’s more difficult to find your way out of being alone. A Lot of things are built on previously existing norms and established ways of doing things. Workers self activity doesn’t form automatically through self-interest it’s build upon already existing shared praxis.
Hey thanks everyone, good
Hey thanks everyone, good posts, will reply properly, am starving and knackered, going to cook then write.
Just quickly because I'm very
Just quickly because I'm very tired, Sharkfinn I have seen proper class struggle in the countryside and when you do see it it can be fantastic, but I've only seen it in places which had a 200 year history of revolutionary class warfare and that is pretty rare and sadly does not describe modern conditions in Essex.
I think your post is basically right about everything. I'm going to come up with a slightly more interesting post than that tomorrow when I'm not falling asleep.
So, on the small-town
So, on the small-town organizing, I actually have a little bit of first-hand experience. If you will forgive the indulgence, hopefully my anecdotes can be of some use to illustrate some of the challenges.
I grew up in a small, heavily industrialized town in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Union membership was relatively high across industries in the town. There was a tradition of tactical radicalism and extra-union activities. I grew up hearing stories of equipment sabotage, aggressive picket line enforcement, physical confrontations with management and scabs, and wildcat strikes to name just a few examples. While there were these elements of radicalism in the workplace, socially large swaths of the town were very conservative. Most people belonged to one of many denominations of evangelical christianity. Our Pastor frequently gave sermons against socialism as being 'of the devil,' and had a clearly pro-business mindset. That said, he was also practical and knew which side buttered his bread so never spoke overtly against the union, only counseled for 'moderation and patience.'
A perfect illustration of growing up with this dichotomy is when I was young, I never understood why, when singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in church, our hymnals didn't include the "Solidarity Forever" verse that we sang at the union hall.
Shops that weren't unionized suffered from active anti-union propaganda from the bosses, and they did an excellent job playing on various dividing lines.
When I was at university, I came home during the summers and holiday breaks to work in a foundry that was not unionized. While there, I was involved in a unionization organizing campaign for the shop. The company engaged in a heavily anti-union campaign. They told staff that they would move the plant's operations to Mexico if the campaign was successful, demonized the UAW organizers and primary supporters, and mainly used any and all lines of division to break down solidarity. In the end, despite the viciousness of the campaign, the final vote was nearly 50-50, but ultimately the shop remained un-unionized.
Eventually, there was a NLRB decision against the company. They paid out some fines and a couple of wrongful termination settlements, but it did little to help the majority of the workers, as eventually, the plant moved primary operations to Mexico after all.
Shortly thereafter, emboldened by the successful anti-union campaign up the road, the largest union shop in the town (another foundry) locked-out the entirety of the unionized staff in a blatant effort to break the union. My father and other family members worked there, and the workers had successfully navigated many long-term strikes, so most settled-in for a protracted struggle.
The.company brought in scabs from out of state, and in an homogenized, nearly 100% white community, the company made sure to hire primarily African-American scabs. There were plenty of flat-out racists in the town, but the vast majority were not. However, the company made sure to couch the ant-scab efforts in a race-oriented manner, and were successful in framing the active union guys as racists. This campaign was so successful that it made the already difficult task of organizing out of town solidarity actions (the town was 90 miles away from the nearest major city) almost impossible. "I heard they were a bunch of racists!" was a common response I got when trying to get folks to travel for picket line support and other solidarity efforts..
This image of racist workers was ultimately solidified at a town-wide solidarity rally in the city park when the area Klan made an appearance in full force. That they were chased off after frank and open conversations was not reported. Instead, the story of the lock-out--if it was known at all; there was very little press coverage--was about the white racist unionized workers vs. African-American replacement workers.
The company was also successful at dividing older workers against their younger co-workers by offering a fairly pain-free exit to retirement plan for the 20+ years of service people, while gutting pay and benefits for the folks under that length of service cut-off.
Even with all of this, the workers stuck together for a full 9 months of the lock-out. It was only after they collectively lost their unemployment cases that they eventually signed a contract that effectively broke the union. Today, many of the jobs at the plant have been off-shored, much like the other foundry.
While there was a shockingly high amount of solidarity from other town members, the negativity of the company's tactics have left the town divided. Many relationships were permanently severed. The town contunues to bleed jobs to the global south, and union membership is at an all-time low for the area.
I guess the point of telling these stories as it relates to the thread, is that the class struggle is alive and well in small towns, and has some radical elements. But the difficulties inherent in organizing around the radical elements are massive.
1.)The struggles have an inordinate impact on smaller communities for a number of reasons:
a) A much higher percentage of the population is impacted both financially and socially.
b) When campaigns inevitably become divisive, it's much more difficult to paper-over differences. In a city, you can quite easily actively avoid people, but this is almost impossible in small communities.
c) It's pretty much impossible to be anonymous. If a picket line uses assertive tactics, no balaclava in the world is going to hide your identity. Everybody knows everyone else.
3.) It's very difficult, even in today's connected world, to get solid, fact-based reporting from struggles in small towns.
4.) It's even more difficult to get people to travel the long-distances required for solidarity actions, and such actions are highly susceptible to the 'outside agitator' narrative.
5.) As a whole, many smaller communities are much more conservative on social issues. I don't know what, if any, a solution to this dilemma would look like, except to hope Dauve is right about social grievances evaporating during times of intense class struggle...
That's a great post
That's a great post jesuithitsquad and thank you.
I have family in a small village in a reactionary, wealthy non-industrial area. Recently the church has taken over the village hall and rented it out to a private gym so no one else can use it now. The hall was previously used for loads of events and activities, I've even been there several times when my family are winning Best Homemade Marmalade Award and Best Humorous Root Vegetable. My relative is organising the campaign about the village hall, and people are really, really averse to getting into 'conflict' or anything that will 'cause division' even though the church has started the conflict by doing a land grab and depriving everyone else of use of the hall. It doesn't help obviously that it's the church, they still do have a lot of emotional power over people.
However I noticed for example when my relative was involved in collecting for Calais migrants, there was no trouble, I suppose because it was a model of activity that people felt was normal for them, collecting up clothes for charity is a very typical activity in English culture.
jesuithitsquad wrote: It's
Definitely, even on my estate I struggle with this, when organising on the estate I feel visible and exposed and it feels weird.
Sharkfinn wrote: I’m
Yes you're right about this, LAWAS did a lot, people called them the 'sindicato latino' although officially they were a community group. They had an arrangement with T&G where they ran sessions for Latino workers to attend to get help and they were being kind of a Latin community wing of the union, based on shared language. I used to volunteer there.
I have found even in normal mainstream Trade Union organising, the 'existing subcultural space' helps a lot. One problem in TU organising is how to break out of your little patch and connect with other workers. It has really helped me, for example when trying to organise activity across different workplaces during a big strike, I was communicating with a lot of other local shop stewards that I already knew through squatting/anarchism/community things.
jesuithitsquad wrote: Even
This is a good point. For example, Greenpeace UK has 100,000+ "supporters" who give them a regular donation. However, most of the people who do the "actions" (climbing up shit, the various stunts, etc) are paid Greenpeace staff or ex-staff.
I often wonder whether this isn't a kind of 'outsourcing,' where people outsource their political commitment or 'activist energy' to other groups, organisations, even individuals -- like the fairly typical situation shop stewards find themselves in, where (try as they might), people still view the shop steward as being The Union, and they're really happy to have them there, might even admire their commitment, but don't want to get involved themselves.
Whether NGOs and mainstream unions actually *want* grassroots involvement is another question, of course. What's fairly certain is that there's a model of involvement at work here (give us a few quid, maybe wear a badge, say nice things about us on the internet) which is at best something other than grassroots involvement, and at worst, something that is directly damaging to it.
The main reason why the
The main reason why the labour party is able to attract members/supporters is not just because it’s easy to join per se. It’s because it is something that the people joining are realistically able to do. Of course the political beliefs of these people are relevant too but I’m ignoring them here for the sake of talking about structural issues with direct action campaigns.
The labour party or the SWP or whatever public lefty sect that’s looking for new recruits can be joined by pretty much anyone. You don’t need a politicized social circle, skills or social capital to do it. New members can be schooled and put to work selling papers or door to door canvassing, simple stuff that most people can do almost immediately.
Often these parties also try to train their members as ‘organisers’ or cadre. That’s why you get the occasional SPGB beardie with a megaphone on a picket lines. But here they can encounter similar problems we’re having organising unorganised industries or communities. You can’t be just a button (no pun intended). It’s not grunt work but nor is it about being a leader. You need to be reflective, know what’s going on, have a sense of trust, dialogue, and comradeship, i.e. you need to have actual solidarity among the people you are organising with.
Shared assumptions people have about the world, and what kind of discourses are prevalent affects how they organise. For example the common idea about unions as service providers and membership as client-service relationship is really problematic. When asking about do people know who are union members here, do we have a shopsteward and that kind of thing, I’ve gotten responses like - it’s everyone’s private matter are they union members or not, and people getting uncomfortable about just mentioning unions in relation to industrial dispute. The accepted understanding of what a union is - is based on business unionism so you can’t really go, “alright let’s organise one of ‘em unions”, straight away.
First thing would be to get people to understand what could be gained through collective action and how solidarity works. The usual answer for this has been “small winnable victories” and “action precedes consciousness”, which is OK, fine, but what if there aren’t any small winnable victories to be had because there isn’t any workers’ power due to lack of solidarity & consciousness, it’s the chicken and the egg problem. I don’t claim to have a defined answer to this, but I think the OP touched on it with “Build alt-media and social networks”. There needs to be away to make cultural breakthroughs into communities where we don’t have reach.
Alt-media is OK but it would have to be the kind of alt-media that reaches the crowd we normally don’t reach. I don't think the problem of reaching the people we currently don't reach is about pulling our collective bootstraps. Its more about figuring out some kind of connection we haven't developed yet.
Just direct action as a way of breaking out of our subcultural space or moving trade unionism further from the few already organised industrial sectors is problematic to the extend that it is based on drawing from existing resources (solidarity) that we only seem to have in these spaces.
the button wrote: For
Taking Greenpeace as an example, the purpose is obviously to head off grassroots involvement/interference with the market.
Paul Watson, one of its co-creators says it's just an eco-bureaucracy. 'I feel like Dr Frankenstein. Greenpeace has become the world's biggest feel-good organisation. It brings in 300 million dollars a year and with that money it generates more money. The people at the top of the totem pole are not environmentalists. They're fundraisers, accountants, lawyers, they're business people. When I'm told that the former president of Greenpeace Patrick Moore now works for the Canadian logging industry as spokesperson for the British Columbian Forest Alliance, or that former president of Greenpeace Australia Paul Gilding now works as a consultant for BP's Australian mining outlet, or the former president of Greenpeace Norway works for the whaling industry, it's not strange to me, they're all just corporate jobs.'
Greenpeace, along with the likes of the Sierra Club and Forest Ethics, co-opted First Nations' direct action struggles against logging corporations in Canada back in the 90s. The director of Greenpeace International Global Climate and Energy Program was the chief environmental negotiator in talks carried out away from public oversight, in particular away from those who'd carried out the actions and organised a very successful awareness campaign. Greenpeace ignored the protocol agenda of between 40% and 60% minimum conservation they'd agreed with First Nation campaigners and managed to have it reduced to 20%.
More recently in May 2010 Greenpeace and other NGOs signed the Boreal Forest Agreement with 21 logging corporations, whose sole purpose was to silence all criticism of logging. And then in June 2010 Greenpeace agreed to a deal allowing commercial whaling to continue.
How good would people feel about themselves if they knew outsourcing their 'activism' to NGOs was producing results like these? Whatever the answer the relationship of NGOs or other tentacles of state and capitalism with grassroots organisers is fairly uncomplicated.
the button wrote: I often
I'm pretty sure you're on to something there. Like, "I give You guys money so you can do the stuff i can't, or choose not to, do" type of attitude.
jesuithitsquad wrote: I'm
On another thread I posted that one of the most important questions for groups to be able to answer is "Ok, this all sounds good, but what do I do tomorrow?" Clearly "bung us a few quid and leave it there" isn't a good answer, as this just reinforces passivity, and being an audience for big p Politics rather than a participant.
This is a real balancing act, because on the other hand "activism" can become an end in itself, and is ultimately counterproductive. I suppose I return to two soundbites. The first is from the UK Anarchist Federation which phrases its expectation that members will actually do stuff along the lines of "we are not a passive fanclub for anarchy," while recognising that membership doesn't and shouldn't take over your life. The other is a phrase the IWW use -- "help the work along." I take this to mean that everyone can do something. Maybe more than that, it's a recognition that it's something we're doing, or can do, all the time, not in special "political" compartment of our lives.
Been drinking again, fams.
Somebody, maybe Steven., said
Somebody, maybe Steven., said on another thread something about organisational self-preservation becoming the primary organizational purpose for a lot of groups, and I think without setting out expectations like you've listed above, it's a kind of natural progression towards atrophy.
Also, to second requests from the other thread, drink moar...
I think direct action has
I think direct action has lost its way a bit, I don't know why but possibly it was going well and was successful so governments clamped down on it and maybe people just don't feel it's worth it any more.
I recently watched the excellent documentary If a tree falls: The story of the Earth liberation front. It's well worth a watch. I don't know that the climate exists for such action anymore for partly the reason I gave above and partly I don't know why.
Just to clarify, what do you exactly mean by direct action? Any action outside of mainstream political structures or the prototypical direct action as seen in that documentary?
Direct action is action
Direct action is action without intermediaries. So if there's a problem, you address the problem itself, rather than asking someone else to fix it for you. It's the difference between getting together and stopping fascists marching through your area and lobbying the government to ban fascists from marching. Or the difference between you and your workmates walking off your job after 8 hours, and supporting a political party that is in favour of passing a law to limit the working day to eight hours.
Protest and direct action are two different things. If you go on a demo about how bad a thing is, it doesn't matter how revolutionary your slogans are or how black your flag is, you are engaged in protest, not direct action.
(Is roughly what I mean by direct action at 2 in the morning).
the button wrote: Whether
I kept meaning to come back to this but forgot. My impression is that they LOVE having grassroots involvement as long as that involvement follows the approved line. The minute they no longer have absolute control, they'll pull the plug. Not a groundbreaking analysis I know, but I do think it's good to verbalize these things every so often.
jesuithitsquad wrote: My
I think the Unite Community Union is an example of this. Community union membership is open to unemployed, pensioners, benefit claimants etc and I was told - unofficially - that the union bosses saw them as useful reserve army foot soldier fodder to call on for beefing up worker pickets & demos; while branch organisers saw the CU as a way to tap Unite funds & resources for more direct action activities and wider campaigns. (Not that CU organisers aren't anyway onside with the union's basic orientation of membership growth, leftist campaign & lobbying tactics and the ultimate dream of getting Labour back in power.) Add to that the likelihood of a wider source of recruitment and cheap on-job training possibilities for lower union cadre/bureaucrats, potential widening of union influence to previously unreached social areas, a modest increase in paid subs and membership boost and penetration into previously uncharted political campaign territory (eg, anti-workfare). Plus perhaps the influence of earlier Obama-style election campaign tactics and also influence of the back'n'forth jobs crossover between NGO & TU careerists.
And yes, a heavy hand from on high would soon pull back into line any 'excesses' in CU behaviour and root out the deviants. So far I doubt that's been necessary - but, in flexing their muscle, they were quite efficient in the early days in blocking and dismissing attempted SWP takeover of one or two CU branches.
Hey loads of great posts
Hey loads of great posts everyone.
So I talked to a mate today about this issue and one thing we both kept coming back to was the strain doing grassroots direct action stuff puts on you as a person. Issues about time, energy, skill, emotional burnout and risk are especially hard to deal with when there's not many people involved so there's a lot of pressure on a few of you.
One issue that I have found hard is when you are dealing with people in really difficult circumstances, it is very difficult to take breaks or set limits when you need to. People will always talk to you about the importance of doing this but it can be genuinely difficult.
It also takes ages, sometimes years, to feel confident and competent in areas where it really matters if you fuck it up. Yes there is an issue here with 'leadership' but if you are arguing that people should do something in potentially a more risky way rather than 'going through the proper channels' then it does really matter that it works and no one gets fucked over.
After years of really working hard on stuff you can easily end up feeling totally exhausted and I for one would really like it if someone else would just sort out all my problems in exchange for a monthly direct debit or something.